Interview with Fanin Toth from Aurora

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In Budapest we met Fanin Toth. She is currently coordinator of Aurora, a café, community centre and hub for political activists in the 8th district. Toth tells us about the gentrification the residents of Budapest are suffering from and analyses the transition from communist dictatorship to the so-called ‘democracy’ of Viktor Orban, who’s scapegoating NGOs and George Soros. Moreover, she articulates her ambition to form alliances with similar common-oriented organisations and to make Aurora a kind of blueprint of the open, diverse city of tommorrow.

 

“I worked in Aurora as a coordinator, as bartender and as a spokesperson because in the beginning, the policy in Aurora was to work behind the bar, because that was the only position that got paid. So apart from bartending, you could also volunteer for another subdivision such as organising concerts or designing the building. In the first place Aurora is a café and a club, but it’s also the root for cultural activities and activism that are anti-establishment. We used to squat a place, but the government wasn’t very happy with that and forced us to move. We think it was because there was a huge concentration of activists, it worked too well. Now we have a good rental contract, so the government can’t influence us anymore, even though we still organise demonstrations and activist groups and everything. So we like to call this place a community house. Because we organise, but we also give place to other organisations and groups.

 

“We have a philosophy of commons, but it’s very complex to translate theory into practice.”

 

We have a philosophy of commons, but it’s very complex to translate theory into practice, so we’re trying to find our way there. Everything used to be horizontal, everybody was equal, a board of longtime collaborators. However, now, the system changed to something more hierarchical. I worked in Aurora as a coordinator until last summer. The money I got paid wasn’t enough to live a normal life, so I got a job in some office. But I still love this place and I know every corner and the community and the people. I like to be here and I’m living next-door so I’m here if something happens.

 

There are other initiatives that are up and running like Aurora. Goia, for example, has the same idea. There is a bar in the community house there, and a kindergarten and concerts. Also there is a place called ‘Mussi’. Mussi is a different ‘brand’, because they do loud electronic music in an empty building, but we try to help each other. We all experience some difficult times because the rent is getting more expensive.

 

“[W]e try to avoid all politics. […] Maybe that’s weird to say in Hungary, since there used to be a saying that in Hungary everybody understands two things: politics and football.”

 

This district (where Aurora lies in) used to be full of crime, it was the most dangerous district of Budapest. But the centre has become terrible, catered for tourists, full of clubs, loud venues and AirBNB flats. People can’t live there so they come to the 8th district, so obviously, our rent prices increase. Classic gentrification. It already happened in our 7th district. There are loud protests from inhabitants from 8th to stop it from happening, but what can we do? There is no stopping. The 8th district is an interesting district: places are more open-minded and focused on culture. It used to be a gipsy district and we tried to collaborate with them and tried to start a conversation with the neighbours but it’s so hard. The leading party Fidesz is in charge of the district, but we try to avoid all politics. We like the conversations between them and we give them place, maybe a roundtable, but we don’t want to be involved. Maybe that’s weird to say in Hungary, since there used to be a saying that in Hungary everybody understands two things: politics and football. Of course, that’s not true. I don’t think so anyways, because we still struggle with the previous dictatorship. They pretend it’s democracy now, but they do exactly the same things. There is a lot of corruption and no free press. There is not enough freedom of speech as well. Here in Budapest we are in a bubble. We know each other, we talk to each other, we organise demonstrations against the government, but in the countryside: silence, nothing. I lived in Scotland for a while and I came back, because I felt I had to do something. I earned good money there, but my heart was here. I felt that I left the country without any options, so I wanted to fight. I don’t want to be a part of the political struggle however. I prefer working for the civil society because I think it’s more important.

 

“[My parents] lived in a period that was undemocratic and they facilitated the change to democracy, that’s true, but it’s not really democracy, is it?”

 

It’s also a generational conflict. For example, my parents and their parents don’t understand what democracy exactly is. They lived in a period that was undemocratic and they facilitated the change to democracy, that’s true, but it’s not really democracy, is it? And it was not the real change we needed, even though the history books framed it as real change and how we finally found the light after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I think it’s horse shit. Maybe in Berlin it was the big revolution, but here, you went to bed and woke up the next day and suddenly we lived in a democracy. Life went on, nothing changed. At the end of communism, we had free elections and then the democratic party came into power, and also Fidesz, because Orban was the new hope. He still is for the older people because they remember he was young and powerful and he represented change. They’re not able to realise that it’s the same shit differently packaged.

 

“[T]his is why we created Aurora: to give a space to different groups of people from different backgrounds and mix them all and get them all to believe and actually work for a city that is open to all and run a press centre.”

 

On the left we only have microparties. Right now, they’re trying to make an alliance, but I think it’s not such a great idea, because they are so different from each other, and some are opportunists. But there is a potential for a progressive party to emerge and to grow, since there are many young people who want change and don’t like Orban. They need an alternative that has a certain legitimacy and people feel that their vote makes sense. But my friends say they don’t want to go vote because they’re cynical and they don’t feel they will change things. They have just one vote, they don’t see their own importance. So they don’t give a shit. Most of my friends from my hometown just left the country because they want to live their life in a place that offers them a chance to grow. And this is why we created Aurora: to give a space to different groups of people from different backgrounds and mix them all and get them all to believe and actually work for a city that is open to all and run a press centre. They work together and even though we are very small, we at least do it and we form alliances with other organisations.

 

We’re experiencing difficult times, because the government made a scapegoat of NGOs and also of Soros. As for Aurora, we got money from the Open Society Foundations. I think it is the normal way in a normal country that NGOs are working like this, it’s not a new idea. Only in Hungary the government said that we are communist and we want to create anarchy. So we work to change the minds of the people around this.”

Interview by OIKOS
Photo by Sonderland